Maryland volleyball coach Adam Hughes knew somebody had beaten him to his office when he walked in and found an intrusion of fake cockroaches scattered around the room.
Hughes laughed the prank off, especially after he discovered one of the perpetrators was among the team’s newest arrivals, who clearly felt at ease being themself within a new program.
That comfort was all Anastasia Russ had ever wanted.
After a turbulent tenure at Pitt, Russ sought to discover herself away from her hometown college. The touted 6-foot-5-inch middle blocker was intent on transferring to the West Coast before a last-minute visit to College Park helped her realize what she needed was much closer to home.
Russ committed to Maryland ahead of the 2022 season and immediately settled in both on and off the court. She led all of Division I with 182 total regular season blocks and earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors.
She complemented that breakout defensive campaign by becoming just one of three Terps to finish with more than 200 kills. This year, Russ continues to anchor Maryland as a redshirt senior — she is one of two Terps who have tallied triple-digits in both kills and blocks.
All that success came only a year after Russ considered quitting volleyball altogether. Instead, she found the self-confidence that previously eluded her and felt Maryland embrace her eccentric personality.
“I just needed an opportunity,” Russ said. “Once I was given a chance to play my game, I knew that I’d be capable of doing so much.”
Stuck on the sidelines
Pitt’s Kayla Lund lashed a spike against two Nebraska defenders during the Panthers’ Final Four match in December 2021.
The Cornhuskers’ duo pinballed Lund’s shot back on Pitt’s side of the net. As it did, a sea of red jerseys flooded onto the court in jubilation. Meanwhile, the dejected Panthers huddled one final time.
The rejection sealed Nebraska’s four-set victory and ended the most successful campaign in Pitt history, one in which it reached the national semifinals for the first time. It also ended Russ’ Panthers career.
She watched the decisive point from the sideline, where she spent much of her time at the school.
Two years earlier, Russ agreed to redshirt during her first season at Pitt, using that time to adjust to the rigors of Division I volleyball.
“After that first year, I was itching to get on the court and make an impact,” Russ said. “It was a little disappointing.”
She never received the playing time she wanted. Russ rarely played as a redshirt freshman during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, which saw Pitt reach the Elite Eight.
Russ also felt excluded off the court. She struggled to find support and a sense of belonging within the program, one where she felt she couldn’t be herself.
“They cut her confidence down,” her father, Peter Russ, said.
It hurt more because of Russ’ connection to Pitt. The campus was less than half an hour away from her home and she attended her first Division I camp there.
But after two tough years, Russ wanted to transfer in search of more playing time and a different atmosphere. Pitt’s coaches asked her to reconsider, she said, telling her to appreciate what the program had given her.
Ahead of the 2021 season, Russ decided to stay and earn more playing time. But her chances of securing a starting spot dwindled when Serena Gray, an acclaimed middle blocker from Penn State, transferred to Pitt.
Soon after Gray joined the Panthers, Russ received a gut punch.
Pitt’s coach, Dan Fisher, called to tell her she wouldn’t play much and that she was free to transfer.
Russ felt “betrayed,” especially because the call came too late for her to switch schools before the season. She added that Pitt’s staff told her to keep her transfer plans a secret to avoid disrupting the team’s chemistry during the season.
Pitt declined to comment.
A frustrated Russ played sparingly behind Gray in 2021. But after Nebraska stymied Pitt’s postseason run, Russ gathered her teammates and through tears, shared her intention to transfer.
“Definitely a lot of mixed emotions,” Russ said. “Excited about the new chapter, but sad about the people I was leaving behind.”
A change of heart
An empty Maryland campus greeted Hughes when he arrived on a chilly day shortly after Christmas in 2021 to secure a key piece for the Terps’ future.
The coach hadn’t planned to give an impromptu recruiting tour during the holidays, but re-arranged his schedule once he learned Russ and her parents were visiting College Park as their transfer decision loomed.
Because Russ had to wait until Pitt’s season ended, she went through a compressed and hectic transfer process.
“I was on calls with coaches from when I woke up to when I went to bed,” she said.
Russ was “dead set” on going to the West Coast so she could escape Pittsburgh. She enjoyed touring schools in California and mainly agreed to visit Maryland because her parents encouraged her to.
“I wasn’t really expecting much,” Russ said. “It was kind of a trip to make my parents happy.”
The modest tour was the first time she and Hughes met in person.
Hughes drove Russ and her parents around the barren campus in a golf cart before showing them the locker room and gym.
“I was a little bit nervous because you’re trying to showcase the university in this positive light, and there [were], like, no humans there,” Hughes said.
The visit only lasted a few hours, but Russ quickly recognized Hughes’ passion and realized that she didn’t need to move west to find what she had sorely missed at Pitt — a genuine connection with the coach.
“As soon as I had a couple of conversations with [Hughes] in person I knew that Maryland was the right school,” she said.”
Russ left Maryland that December day with about a week to decide on her new home. Instead of flipping to the sun-splashed West Coast, Russ rerouted to College Park, which offered the clean slate she needed to wash away the struggles from her hometown school.
“Coming [to Maryland] felt like a fresh start,” Russ said. “It just felt right.”
Hughes still keeps one of Russ’ fake cockroaches on his desk.
For the Terps’ coach, it’s a memento of the moment he knew Russ’ relationship with her new program was “a perfect marriage.”
“I just wanted her to feel safe and comfortable and let her shine for who she is,” Hughes said.
Russ never would have felt comfortable pulling such a prank at Pitt, she said. And while she hasn’t carried out any shenanigans since, she routinely draws attention by toting her pet cat, Luna, in a clear ventilated backpack. Russ said she’s brought her cat to class and media day, as well as on Metro rides and trips to Washington, D.C.
“She’s always kind of had that quirkiness about her, and that’s what we love,” Hughes said.
Russ’ personality meshed well within Maryland’s culture, so much so that the Terps now entrust her with the responsibility of being the team’s locker room DJ on game days.
“She came in kind of, like, spunky and fun,” senior setter Sydney Dowler said. “To be around a team who is similar in that way really grew her confidence.”
Russ’ eccentric personality at Maryland starkly contrasts the lack of confidence she displayed at Pitt, where she felt like she was treated “more as a player than a person.” She said wasn’t used to being part of a team like Maryland, she said, one that welcomed and supported her unconditionally.
“I really had no problem settling in,” Russ said. “It felt like I had been here my entire career.”
On the court, Russ used her newfound confidence to earn the starting role she never solidified at her former school. She validated that placement with a strong 2022, emerging as an integral part of a Terps front row that led the NCAA in blocking for the second-straight season.
Her maturation has spurred offensive growth. Russ said she has grown more comfortable demanding the ball from Dowler on offense in critical moments.
“She came in trying new things, but now she’s looking at me in the match, like, ‘I want this next set,’” Dowler said. “Hearing those things from my hitters is the best thing that a setter wants to hear.”
Russ hasn’t experienced the same postseason success at Maryland that she grew accustomed to at Pitt — the Terps haven’t made an NCAA tournament since 2005. But after having her volleyball career uprooted, Russ has blossomed at Maryland into the player and person she knew she could become.
“I just needed one chance,” Russ said. “Maryland gave me that chance. And I took it and I ran with it.”